Art History for Skeptics

Frank Stella's "rebuilt painting" at the newly-reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Frank Stella’s “rebuilt painting” at the newly-reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

This blog is dedicated to skeptics. In the preceding blog, I offered specific examples of art which might change minds and inspire action. But what about abstract art, like Picasso’s, or non-objective art, like the constructions of Frank Stella (1936- ) at SFMOMA? What do these, or the many more recent and contemporary abstract and non-objective artists have to contribute to society?

My former art history professors would have argued that art is not about “use” and that only governments of restrictive regimes make that claim.

Instead, I suggest two ways in which these artists can be said to “change minds, inspire action”:


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Edvard Munch (1863-1944)






  • Artists like Picasso, Matisse and Munch were vilified when they first veered away from traditional “representational” styles – painting and sculpture which represents what we see, the “real” world. (Note that the term “realistic” art is an oxymoron, since no art can completely imitate nature, it can only “represent”/interpret it). When artists like Impressionist Monet, and later Picasso and Munch, began to “abstract” nature – that is, begin with nature and pull it toward an optical, intellectual abstraction (Picasso), a sensual one (Matisse), or an emotional one (Munch), they were either denigrated or ridiculed in the press.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Frank Stella, earlier work (1967)

Frank Stella, earlier work (1967)






Beginning with Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), through Frank Stella and increasingly many other artists today, we have “non-objective” art, which does not begin with nature at all. These artists use elements of art like color, line, shape, and texture to create their works.

Eventually, critics, dealers, collectors and the public began to accept and understand that these were courageous individuals with unique artistic vision. So first, we have artists as rebels, reinventing a world view. In helping us to see the world differently, they let us know that we can, in all realms of personal, social and public interaction, “think outside the box” or even to re-think the box itself. They inform us that it is possible to change things, and they give us an example of how they did it – morally, visually, and professionally.

Picasso's Synthetic Cubism: taking objects apart and reassembling them.

Picasso’s Synthetic Cubism: taking objects apart and reassembling them.

  • Picasso takes apart and reconstructs what he sees, which says to me that he is not making a statement about destroying, but about reconfiguring or realigning. This concept is of tremendous “use” to society. It is a concept which relates to societies and communities in everyday life, as well as science and engineering.

As a visual artist, Picasso broke new ground, just as in literature, authors like Dickens and Twain were the first to make heroes out of street urchins or rascals. They changed our minds about the value of all humans, helped us get to know them and to love them, too. In reconstructing the visual world, artists offer a new kind of beauty, one that is balanced, vivid, dynamic, and ultimately, full of hope.

Elise with Helene and Marilyn (the "Proust" readers) at SFMOMA.

Elise with Helene and Marilyn (the “Proust” readers) at SFMOMA.

P.S. If you haven’t yet visited the newly-reopened SFMOMA in downtown San Francisco, plan on more than one visit! The sheer scale of it, the quality of collections, not to mention the lunch and coffee/pastry selections, top any “modern art” museum in the world!


This entry was posted in Arts and society, Purposes of abstract art and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Art History for Skeptics

  1. Ann Foster says:

    I quite literally was smacked in the face by a simple painting – Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose – (1633) by Francisco de Zurbaran. It’s just fruit, a basket, a cup, and a rose. What could be so special about that? As I looked, I realized it was one of the sexiest and most subversive paintings I had ever seen. I looks reverential – almost nun-like in it’s simplicity – but oh my word, you have to see it to believe it. Wonderful.


  2. What a specific and insightful response to a painting! Love your comment, relate to your experience! Thanks, Ann!


  3. Picasso’s work is powerful to me because he showed the world a completely different way to see. That is no small accomplishment! I will definitely have to plan a visit to MOMA. It’s been years since I’ve visited.


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